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We need to talk about failure

Opinion, 14 July 2017
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The advertising industry, and its awards, celebrates only success - forgetting the failures from which we could all learn important lessons, argues Gareth Kay. Perhaps it’s time we dug those failures out.

We work in an industry that's all about celebrating the best. We want to win a Lion at Cannes. We pore over D&AD annuals, IPA winners and APG case studies. We want to be the very best, so it's perhaps unsurprising we intuitively want to learn from the best. We praise the new, the brave, the bold and, by and large, we scorn the failures.

It explains why we place some brands on unrealistic pedestals. It's almost a law that every presentation must reference another great ad from Nike or another ingenious product from Apple, the exemplars of brands that seemingly can do no wrong. But as Russell Davies pointed out a few years ago, these companies are far from perfect. There is a great presentation waiting to be written that highlights the disastrous Nike ads and Apple products (does anyone remember the Apple Newton or Mac Pro?).

Thankfully, Samuel West has decided it's time to shine a light on failure by opening the Museum of Failure in Stockholm, Sweden. There are the usual suspects on display, from Google Glass to the Apple Newton to the Segway. Inside the museum, there are some great lessons to learn.

Segmentation-driven innovation is often the first place marketers look, but Bic stretched this idea to a ridiculous degree with its launch of Bic For Her: Bic pens with a floral pattern. Then there is the oft-used brainstorming trick of colliding together previously unconnected trends. Wind the clock back to 2009, and you'll find a product birthed from combining the explosive growth of mobile devices (we were in peak BlackBerry times) and the cultural mania for Twitter, to create a BlackBerry-like device solely focused on reading and posting to Twitter. Unfortunately for the TwitterPeek, they'd forgotten the launch of the Apple App Store a year earlier and the simple fact that people had been trained over the preceding decade to expect their mobile devices to do multiple things, including being able to update Twitter via the web or an app.

There are multiple examples of companies creating products that were solving problems that simply didn't exist. The CueCat raised $185 million in 2000 with the idea of removing the non-problem of people being unwilling to type the URLs of companies they read about in magazines. The ingenious (and pointless) idea was to print special barcodes that could be scanned from the magazine using a cat-shaped scanner. It makes QR codes look like an eminently logical idea. There are stories of missed opportunities.

Kodak designed the first digital camera all the way back in 1975 but decided the future lay in photo printing. If only it had remembered this innovation and acted on it in the age of photo sharing. Instead, it filed for bankruptcy in 2012, months before Facebook acquired Instagram. Finally, you see the over-extension of brands. Harley-Davidson tried to enter the fragrance market, Coca-Cola the coffee market and, perhaps most worryingly of all, Colgate entered the exploding frozen ready meal market in the 1980s – Colgate Beef Lasagne anyone?

Hilarity aside, the museum exists to make an important point. It's well known that around 90% of innovations fail, yet we only seem to focus our attention on the 10% that are, in some degree, successful. Surely, there's more for us to learn from the failures than from the successes. This has perhaps never been as true as at this current time when, as Adam Morgan memorably put it, "we are all Uber's children". We have higher expectations than ever before and are becoming increasingly unreasonable as consumers.

We have absurd expectations and if brands don't continually push to meet these expectations, they risk being seen as antiquated and not user friendly. We are being trained to expect everything to be as simple as pushing a button and, as a result, experiences that aren't seem to be increasingly intolerable. Forget what your direct competitors are doing: your competition is now the best experiences out there. We have trained people to expect dramatic transformation and a continuous pace to innovation.

So, perhaps it's time to learn from failure. And that means perhaps celebrating it a bit more. I'd be interested in the stories of failure from the people behind the best brands. The ideas that saw the light of day and those that were hidden in an experiment only seen by a few. Perhaps in award shows, we should create new categories about new learning from failures – the strategies that seemed to make logical sense but somehow failed to gain momentum in the market. From failure, maybe we can create a better and braver map of the world to plot our future journeys.

Inside the world's worst ads Read why Jon Wilkins, Chairman of London agency  Karmarama, embraces #brandfail, and explore ten categories of colossal failure  he shared at the 2017 Global Marketer Week. Download now

About the author

Gareth Kay is co-founder at Chapter, San Francisco - a creative company dedicated to solving problems facing pioneering businesses. A strategist by trade, his previous agencies include Zeus Jones and Goodby Silverstein & Partners.

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